A tradition-bound sport first organized into regional competitions by the 19th century upper crust, now played by many teams but dominated by an unchanging coterie. It holds itself above commercial concerns but auctions the names of its venerable stadiums and competitions to the highest bidder.
A conservative sport run by a cabal of myopic middle-aged men in a remote location far from the media’s prying eye and which, until recently, determined its champion through arcane rankings as indecipherable to the common fan as reading runes. And now, finally, after many false starts, it will have playoffs.
College football? Close! But I’m talking about Andy Zaltzman’s and Mark Wahlberg’s favorite sport, cricket!
Much like the four-team College Football Playoff, set to end in Dallas in January of 2015, the four-team ICC World Test Championship, set for England in June of 2017, purports to at long last deliver an undisputed champion for a sport as often mired in championship controversy as tradition. But for all the criticisms cast at the College Football Playoff, such as the possible exclusion of non-power conference schools, at least there’ll be a winning team lifting a trophy amid exploding fireworks and 90,000 fans either roaring in rapture or groaning in grief. Whereas the Test Championship could easily end with a winner-by-default limply presenting a trophy to a smattering of shivering and miserable fans huddled underneath umbrellas hours, or even days, after play was abandoned for rain.
That’s just what happened weeks ago in the third test of five in the Ashes series between England and Australia as a combination of rain and an overcast sky resulted in a draw. A draw in cricket means something quite different than in other sports. A five-day test cricket match, like soccer, can end in a tie. But this has only happened twice out of the more than 2,000 international matches that have been played since the first one in 1877. A far more common result is a draw, wherein one side can’t get the requisite 20 wickets (i.e., outs) off the other side within five days. A draw is a tolerable result if one side’s batting is valiantly obstinate to the other’s bowling, but it’s insulting when foul weather causes one.
Conqueror and Colony play each other approximately every two years for the replica of an urn created partly in jest to commemorate England’s first home loss to Australia in 1882. For decades the Ashes series was the de facto world test championship as other countries were only slowly granted admission into the club. Despite each side’s fluctuating fortunes the Ashes has maintained its status as test cricket’s preeminent matchup. Since 1997, the series’ length is fixed at five test matches. If the two sides split the series, then the winner of the prior series keeps the Ashes.
England emphatically stomped Australia in the last series played down under over the antipodean summer of 2010/2011. They then opened this summer’s Ashes with wins in the first two tests. So Australia faced a do-or-die going into the the third test at Manchester’s Old Trafford No, not that Old Trafford. The other one, a few blocks down. A Mancunian mirror of the Meadowlands with the same gray permacloud but with train tracks and row houses instead of highways and swamps.
In their first innings of that crucial third test, Australia’s batters rose from their shallow grave like Altered Beast to swat England around for 527 runs. Their bowlers then skittled England out for 368. Batting into their second innings on the fourth day, Australia could afford to aggressively add to their insurmountable lead and still leave enough time to win by bowling England out a second time. But late in the afternoon the umpires, led by the pleasantly plump and nobly-named Marais Erasmus, controversially called off play for bad light.
Australia’s captain, Michael Clarke, argued vociferously to no avail as England’s Stuart Broad looked on with impish delight. The next morning, Australia declared (surrendered its batting position), and quickly snagged three English wickets. Seven wickets away from a victory that would put the urn back into play the dark skies unleashed a depressingly unyielding torrent. Comically, the rain halted just enough for Australia to bowl three balls after the lunch break. Rain resumed, and at 4:40 PM local time the umpires called off play. The English team then applauded the few fans in attendance from a balcony, and Graeme Swann even guzzled beers with them, but there was no denying that England had retained the Ashes in a most anticlimactic manner.
Any curious American tuning in would have been appalled at letting a little rain ruin a game. Like crazed civil engineering versions of Portlandia’s bird-toppers, we’ll throw a retractable dome on anything, even a stadium used for only two weeks a year. Our desire for resolution is ravenous. The Giants and A’s resumed the 1989 World Series just ten days after the Loma Prietra earthquake ravaged the San Francisco Bay area. In 2008, the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat replayed just the final minute of a game they had played months before because the scorer incorrectly ruled that Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out. In June, the Mets and Braves started a game at nearly 11 PM because of a rain delay. Teams long out of playoff contention will routinely travel to a town on their rare off days to make up relatively meaningless games.
So while services like WatchESPN and the surfeit of shady streams available coupled with the amount of time we spend in front of screens means that the American audience for foreign sports will grow it’s dubious whether cricket will ever spread beyond its immigrant and anglophile niche. Another English import, soccer, has finally broken through to the American mainstream after more than a century of effort. And if its ties are anathema to our preference for happy Hollywood endings, at least they come after the run of play.
Cricket is a much tougher sell, and not just because of weather-caused draws. Baseball, cricket’s distant cousin, long ago ceded its pastime crown to football, and to basketball and skateboarding among younger fans, because it shares some of the same appeal problems. Both sports feature breathtaking fielding feats, dynamic batting, and fiery bowling/pitching but they’re not considered athletic or action-packed sports. Above all else, cricket is a game of myriad nuances, and if you’ve seen a lifted F-150, the ending to “A.I.”, a crunchy ad for a Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Cheeseburger, Katy Perry’s chest, Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the San Jose Sharks logo, Vin Diesel’s face, or tasted Chi-Town’s Lou Malnati’s you know that America doesn’t do ambiguity.
While there are shorter versions of cricket that may hold more appeal for Americans and other countries new to the sport, it’s called test cricket for a reason. It’s worth saving and savoring, as the forthcoming documentary “Death of a Gentleman” will explain. And a test championship to replace computer rankings will go a long way toward increasing its appeal.
But hoping for a change in cricket’s rain policy so that a test championship can actually be held would mean trusting in its leadership. But test cricket’s administration is a study in contrast. The players still wear all-white but are adorned in ads. It’s increasingly played at grounds with floodlights but is only played during the day. It abolished a sixth “rest day” in the 1990s but won’t add a day for play lost to foul weather. It has one of the most advanced instant replay systems in sports, encompassing Hawkeye to track theoretical ball movement, Hotspot to see if the ball hit the bat via infrared and may add Snickometer to pick up sounds, but India refuses to use it. They’ve finally arranged a test championship but haven’t figured out a format which ensures a winner. All that they’ve floated is a ‘timeless test’ final, perhaps ignorant of the farcical last timeless test in 1939 when England and South Africa went at it for nine days before England fled to catch their boat home without a result.
Most importantly, there are ten test-playing countries but the top teams rarely, if ever, play the bottom teams. Emergent cricket playing sides such as the Netherlands and Ireland have no means of entry into the test-playing club. Essentially, the rich sides of England, South Africa, Australia, and India will likely be the only sides contesting the test championship for the foreseeable future. The message to the cash-poor Drake-at-the-bottom-esque remaining six of Pakistan, West Indies, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe is basically “go fuck yourselves.” Just like college football!
Illustration by Aram Gyan.